During Winter Intersession, Clark University is offering a Clark Commons: Special Topics course on COVID, Power, and Inequality. Led by Cynthia Caron, professor of international development and social change, and Jie Park, associate professor of education and director of the Center for Gender, Race, and Area Studies (CGRAS), this interdisciplinary, team-taught class will explore what COVID-19 can teach us not only about power and privilege, but also human possibility and resilience.
We spoke with Professors Caron and Park via email to learn more.
Q: Why did you decide to offer this course as part of Clark Commons?
A: After learning about the first Clark Commons course offered in the summer of 2020 (Pandemic: From Horror to Hope), several faculty members who are affiliated with CGRAS saw Clark Commons as an innovative way to address a topic or question of pressing social and political significance, while highlighting different disciplinary perspectives. We decided to focus on COVID-19, and use COVID-19 as a way to analyze inequities, but also imagine and work toward social change. With the pandemic, faculty also felt the need for community, not only with each other, but with our students in intellectually generative and personally meaningful ways. We are grateful to Betsy Huang, dean of the college, for seeing the potential in an interdisciplinary course like this, and supporting us throughout the process.
Q: What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about inequality?
A: The pandemic is both a natural and social phenomenon that highlights cleavages in society. In the pandemic we see how inequitable access to material resources, poverty, the inability to create wealth, increasing informality in employment, and other dynamics in the labor and housing market which are at the foundation of our market economy have created conditions so that some groups in society became more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. Very often these same groups are excluded from formal politics and institutional decision-making processes, which can exacerbate and further compromise health and safety.
The pandemic has brought to the fore a range of issues that many people particularly in the United States have not necessarily had to contend with before, such as stay-at-home orders and curfews. Such measures meant to keep people safe also have disproportionate effects on specific groups of people, which is why attention to a whole range of demographic and markers of social identity must be explored and why new categories of people such as “essential workers” or concepts such as “working remotely” must be interrogated.
Q: What about resilience, resistance, and possibility?
A: Many students come to Clark because of its motto: “Challenge Convention. Change Our World.” Without theories of resistance and social change, and the belief in human agency, we cannot change our worlds. For example, Professor Park incorporates Patricia Hill Collins’ resistance theory, which begins with the assumption that all people have the capacity to produce knowledge and resist domination. If the social world (and social inequality) is one that is created by human beings, then that means that it can also be changed by us. Professor Nigel Brissett’s episode highlights the concept of creative resilience. Without overromanticizing collective activism, we see power as potentially transformative, liberatory, and counterhegemonic.
Q: Your position is that as a society, we can neither break from the past nor imagine a different world without social critique. Why are the tools and strategies of activism important in this regard?
A: As noted above, many people and communities are excluded from the formal political process. The pandemic illustrates how some governments around the world failed to deliver goods and services to the rural and urban poor. In the face of this social exclusion, which unfortunately is not new for many communities and social groups around the world, we are able to see how social networks and community mobilization continue to work for people who are accustomed to making up these shortfalls.
The danger is not to romanticize this collective activism. Professor Caron’s episode on informal settlements and collective action in the time of COVID will introduce students to the exclusionary processes that residents of informal settlements contend with, and how in the face of COVID-19 they have drawn on pre-existing and new partnerships to care for and address fellow residents’ needs, thereby demonstrating resilience.
Q: Your course encourages learning broadly and synthesizing across disciplines. What subjects can students expect to explore within this context?
A: Students will be introduced to theoretical perspectives from a range of academic disciplines: sociology, psychology, anthropology, and education studies. All of the participating faculty use their respective disciplines’ theoretical and analytical tools to investigate how the pandemic shapes the social world. Professor Abbie Goldberg’s episode on gender and the family will show students how closures of schools and day care centers create extra workloads in the home, but potentially could change some gender norms and expectations — but we won’t give that away here!
Q: What do you hope students will take away from this course?
A: We hope students come away with an appreciation for the power of interdisciplinary thinking, see new links between theory, practice, and possibilities for social change, and make meaningful connections with faculty, graduate course assistants (CAs), and their peers during our synchronous discussion sections.